The Pantheon has represented the greatest expression of the glory of Rome for more than two thousand years. The story of the Pantheon is inseparably tied to the Eternal City. and been its image through the centuries. Built by Agrippa between 25 and 27 BC the Pantheon was a temple dedicated to the twelve Gods and to the living Sovran. Traditionally it is believed that the present building is result of the radical reconstruction by Hadrian between 118 and 125 AD.
It is the only ancient Roman building that has remained practically intact through the centuries. In 608 Pope Boniface IV had the remains of many martyrs removed from the Christian catacombs and placed in the Pantheon. Thereafter the temple was officially converted to Christianity and named Saint Maria ad Martyres. The Pantheon was an inspiration to Raphael, one of the greatest architects of the Renaissance, and he requested it be his place of eternal rest.
Legends and curiosities
History, curiosities and legends of the Basilica Sancta Maria ad Martyres
“Marcus Agrippa Luci filius consul tertium fecit” translates as “Marco Agrippa, son of Lucio, consulate for the third time, built”.
The name Pantheon derives from Greek and means “all the gods” (pan= all, theos = god), and in fact the building was dedicated to all of them.
Yes it does! Rain comes in through the oculus, a hole of almost nine meters in diameter, at the top of the cupola. The floor is slightly convex with 22 drainage holes that allow the rain to filter through.
It means, “What the barbarians didn’t do, Barberini did for them.” The Romans did not appreciate that Pope Urban VIII and Barberini removed the bronze coatings from the porch of the Pantheon to create the canopy for the altar of the Basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican City, and also forged numerous cannons for the Sant’Angelo Castle.
Barberini’s name was thus forever linked to a popular saying: quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini: what the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberinis did for them. Even today this expression is still used by locals.
The outside of the cupola was entirely covered with gilded bronze panels laid in scales. However, in 655, the Oriental Emperor Constantine I had them taken away to be used as molten bronze. The sole exception are the ones surrounding the oculi which you can still observe today.
During the 8th century, the cap was again ornamented with metal, but this time with lead. The original bronze frame of the Pantheon is still in place. There is an inscription on one of the lead panels on the cupola that recalls the restoration work on the lead cover carried out by Pope Niccolò 5th (1328-1330) and Pope Gregory 16th (1831-1846).
The devil’s moat. The Roman and the Abruzzo people have a popular saying that the moat surrounding the Pantheon was dug out by the devil who was awaiting the pledge for his services to the magician, Pietro Bailardo.
Bailardo came out of the Pantheon and paid the devil with four walnuts and then hid in the church. The devil was furious at suffering such an insult and sank into the flames in the bowels of the Earth, thereby creating furrows called “moat of the devil”.
Light and warmth stream through the oculus turning the Pantheon into a “sun temple” as the sun does not always rise at the same point on the horizon. If the points where the sun rises on the dates of the two equinoxes are identified, it is easy to confirm when these occur. When we are inside the Pantheon on a sunny day we can see a large disc of light playing over the vault and walls. The course of the sun in the sky causes this light inside the building to behave differently every day of the year, but the same pattern is repeated every year on that same day.
At the winter solstice the disc of sunlight entering through the oculus at midday strikes the highest caisson. At the Spring and Autumn equinoxes the sunlight strikes the cornice marking the lower edge of the caissons, and at the summer solstice it illuminates the visitor at the entrance. The light striking in a zenith direction has a special mystical meaning and symbolises a direct connection between the gods and men, without any religious intermediaries. The ray of light that enters from the oculus in the centre of the cupola moves according to the time of day and transforms the Pantheon into an astrological observatory to all the Gods.
“The beauty of the Pantheon has always struck people both in the past and the present. When the 18th century French writer Stendhal saw it for the first time he described it with the following words: “The most beautiful relic of ancient Rome, a temple so well preserved that it appears as the Romans must have seen it in their times.”
Apparently the Romans didn’t like the two bell towers that were built at the sides of the front of the Pantheon during the Baroque period. They called them “donkey’s ears”. According to them they were in contrast with the classical architecture that characterised the whole building. The bell towers were removed during the Unity of Italy.